Although in cases of premature birth, there is not a great deal you can do about a baby being born underweight, there are quite a few things you can do about helping to ensure your baby is a good weight if he is born at full-term.
What is a 'low birthweight'?
A baby is considered to have a 'low birthweight' if they weigh less than 5lb 8oz (2500 grams) at birth. It is believed that over five per cent of babies born in the UK each year have a low birthweight.
Around one per cent of all UK babies are born with a 'very low birthweight'. That is 3lb 5oz (1500 grams) or less.
Why is a low birthweight a cause for concern?
The low-birthweight baby is more susceptible to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (cot death), especially very low-birthweight babies.
In the near and longer term, these children may be more likely to developmental disabilities and illness, to the onset of diabetes in adulthood, and to lifelong problems like chronic lung disease and coronary heart disease.
More low-birthweight babies survive now than ever before. Neo-natal care and long term awareness of possible health issues can offer the best odds for these children and when low-birthweight is unavoidable, it is preferable to be pro-active about your child's future health rather than feel that ill-health or disability are an inevitability.
However, many cases of low-birthweight, where prematurity is not the cause, are avoidable by good preparation in pregnancy (and many would agrue, in good nutritional and lifestyle choices even before conception).
Best practice in pregnancy to avoid low-birthweight
You can have a very real affect on the best-odds outcome for your baby's longterm health.
It is probably no surprise that drug abuse and excessive alcohol intake throughout pregnancy can increase your chances of having a low-birthweight baby.
Smoking also increases your chances of having a low-birthweight baby and it is useful to give up smoking altogether when trying for a baby and to assess how much passive smoking you might be exposed to during your pregnancy.
The highest risk social group is women living in deprived conditions (sadly NOT a thing of the past in Britain). Poor antenatal care and bad nutrition play their part in increasing the chances of having a low-birthweight baby. Make sure you keep up your midwife appointments (if you work and are worried about having to go to see your doctor or mdiwife because of your working terms and conditions, the LAW is on your side to protect your job).
Although the government does plan to offer more financial support to help improve the diet of pregnant women, eating well in pregnancy does not have to cost you any more than your usual grocery bill, but it IS important.
If you are concerned about the various costs of pregnancy and parenthood, ask your midwife or doctor to put you in touch with your local council offices who may be able to advise you about additional benefits, support or help.
There is useful information on the various options available if you are not working or on a low income, at www.direct.gov.uk.
When low birthweight is hard to prevent
Understandably, if you have a premature birth your baby will not have had time to gain the weight which the last few weeks of gestation allows for. If there is a known risk that your baby will be born prematurely for whatever reason, you may be able to discuss this in advance with your obstetrician.
If you are suffering from a chronic illness during pregnancy, this may affect the progress of your baby's growth, but the chances are that this can be managed and the risk of low birthweight reduced with medical attention.
If you were a low-birthweight baby yourself, as a mother you are more likely to have a low-birthweight baby and this might be discussed early on in your pregnancy with your midwife team and/or obstetrician.
If your GP, midwife team and obstetrician know there is an increased risk of you having a low-birthweight baby, you will probably be called for extra ultrasound scans.